What It’s Like to be a Gringo in Latin America

Down here, before you even meet me, you’ll know that I’m arrogant, dumb, interesting, ignorant, intelligent, rich, instantly understandable and impossible to comprehend.

 

I’m a gringo in Latin America, which means my identity is a contradiction, and that I constantly balance a strange combination of being criticized, emulated, and exploited.

 

To give you some quick context, I’ve been down here for most of the past six years. I served in the Peace Corps in rural Panama for two years, traveled extensively through Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, and have been living in Chile for the past two years, so I’ve experienced being a foreigner as a resident (in urban and rural areas) and a traveler. Despite all this time here though, it’s still confusing, and I’ve had to learn a lot about the culture and history of the region in order to understand how people think of gringos.

What It's Like to be a Gringo in Latin America

Hiking in the Andes with a mix of expats and locals

Origin of gringo

To begin with, it’s important to understand the word’s (possible) origin and when it’s offensive.

 

There is no definitive history of the word gringo, but many claim that it’s the contraction of “green” and “go.” Green refers to either the color of U.S. military uniforms, or U.S. money – either way, the message is supposedly “green go home.” Given the long history of U.S. meddling in Latin American politics and conflicts (which I’ll touch on later), this anti-U.S. sentiment origin to the word makes sense to a lot of people and remains a popular explanation.

 

Academics though, have questioned this theory and even dismissed it as an outright myth, instead pointing to etymological explanations. Aida Ramirez breaks down some of these alternative explanations in an excellent article for NPR, but they all essentially claim that gringo was simply a word used synonymously with “foreigner.”

 

In my experience, gringo is wielded both ways – as a derogatory term and simply as a shorthand for “person from the United States.” The offense is in its use.

 

When gringo is offensive and when it isn’t

This may sound almost too simple, but I’m only offended by gringo when it’s meant offensively. I’ve experienced many examples of both uses, but I’ll give you just two that represent both cases well.

 

During my Peace Corps service in Panama, I knew that people in my town would sometimes refer to me as “the gringo.” This didn’t bother me because I was literally the only foreign guy around, so it was honestly the most efficient way to narrow down who they were talking about.

What It's Like to be a Gringo in Latin America

Walking to a neighbor’s house during my Peace Corps service in Panama

As a counter example, I was once at a bus terminal in Panama City, waiting in line at a Dunkin Donuts. I was talking to a fellow expat friend in English, when a Panamanian guy behind us in line starting criticizing us, essentially simply because we were foreigners. He said something like “you gringos only care about consuming, you have no respect for other cultures.” There was acid in his voice when he said gringo – he clearly meant it as an insult. And it wasn’t just his tone – here, gringo wasn’t an identifier, it was a derogatory generalization. Never mind that I’m also disgusted by the nature and level of consumerism the average American faces each day; or that I’d lived and worked in Panama for two years and deeply care about it as a country; or that I speak Spanish; or that he was also waiting in line to buy junk food from a U.S. international brand; this guy took one look at me and decided I was despicable and didn’t belong in his country.

 

He offended me, but he is also a good example of a contradiction that exists throughout Latin America.

 

The paradox of emulation vs criticism

Many people here respect the power and the economy that the U.S. has built, but despise our politics, and are disgusted by our culture. This contradiction is evident in most capital cities in Latam, where you will look around and see American brands pushed everywhere and often a lot of advertisements in English. These brands and the use of English are considered prestigious, although I’d bet good money that if you interviewed shoppers walking out of U.S.-brand stores, many would express negative opinions of Americans and our obsession with consumerism, even while they adjust their grip on full bags of newly-purchased clothing. This may sound pretty hypocritical, but I think the contradiction is understandable given the history of widespread U.S. political and cultural imperialism in the region.

 

Cultural and literal imperialism in Latam

The full United States involvement in politics and conflict in Latin America is well beyond the scope of this article, but in short, the U.S. has a long history of overthrowing governments, propping up dictators, and unilaterally claiming territory and sovereignty rights. To name just a few of the many examples, the U.S. took Panama from Colombia in 1904; conquered about half of Mexico in the mid 1840s; and helped overthrow the democratically-elected president of Chile and replace him with Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship of the 1970s and 80s. We haven’t exactly been nice neighbors. (If you are interested in some quick overviews of this history, read the book Bananas and watch the documentary The Harvest of Empire).

What It's Like to be a Gringo in Latin America

Speaking to a fruit vendor in Cuba 

Note that many Latin Americans also bristle at the way we in the United States refer to ourselves as “Americans.” In their eyes, America is the entire continent (both North and South) and we, in a classic example of our arrogance and imperialistic attitudes, are claiming the word, and thus both continents, to refer only to ourselves.

 

Modern Latin Americans also grow up with near-constant exposure to U.S. culture, through television, movies, international news, and internationally-exported brands. Some of my local friends in Panama and Chile know more about Friends and The Simpsons than I do and almost every movie in local theaters is made in the United States. This exposure leads to a paradoxical relationship with the exported side of U.S. culture – while people love the shows, they also feel that the culture is forced on them, which they resent.

 

It also paints an image of Americans as wealthy (seriously, that apartment from Friends would be expensive) – an image that we generally reinforce when we travel overseas and that can be hard to shake, even if you live there and speak the language.

 

Exploitation

If you look like a foreigner in Latin America, you are often viewed as a walking wallet. This is not at all unique to this region, but it’s important to mention, because it’s such a consistent part of being a gringo in Latam.

 

The treatment varies by country and by which part of a city you are walking in. In my experience, as a 5’9 white male with brown hair and a small beard, I can blend in in Buenos Aires and Santiago (Chile), because the populations in those countries are largely white (and because stubble and small beards are trendy in Argentina). In every other country I’ve visited in Latam, I am obviously a foreigner and instantly assumed either American or European. In rural areas, this means most people look at me with a blend of confusion and fascination and then go about their day. In cities, there is a much higher chance that someone will try to take advantage of me.

What It's Like to be a Gringo in Latin America

Buying fruit in the La Vega market in Chile – vendors are pretty honest there

Blatant stuff like random solicitations and exposure to scams are more likely to happen in touristy parts of a city, but even if you are outside of these areas, if you enter a situation where the price is undefined (to you), you transform from random traveler walking down the street into Walking Wallet. This happens a lot in taxis without meters and in markets where the price is not listed. I lived in Panama City for a few months, where taxis don’t have meters, and even though I speak Spanish and knew the system, every ride was a battle for a reasonable price. Explaining that I lived there and knew the real price simply did not work – I was a giant dollar bill, which overrode any attempt at being reasonable.

 

Living this combination of criticism, emulation, and exploitation is weird – I’ve often been insulted and praised in the same sentence by complete strangers. I have had to explain many (many) times that Americans don’t eat McDonald’s for every meal. And I’ve had to reassure locals that a lot of Americans were also disgusted by George W. Bush’s foreign policy. I still haven’t figured out how to explain Trump, but I’m sure I will be answering for his actions for at least the next four years.  

 

Overall though, I have mostly experienced positive reactions when Latin Americans find out I am from the United States. I think in many cases, it’s as simple as people recognizing that I’m not George W., I just happen to be from the same country.   

 

Being a gringo in Latin America means being a blend of mixed and often contradictory characteristics. It’s not always easy, but it is a cross-cultural experience in the truest sense, and definitely teaches you a lot about how our neighbors think of us.